The Tenessean 6 December 1998 Vol. 12-247; News Section by Jay HamburgTennessee voters spoke up loud and clear that they do not want state prisons to be too cushy. Inmates, lawmakers and experts say they need not have worried: Life behind bars had already gotten more restricted.
No more personal cassette players. No cable television. No new weightlifting equipment.
And even the toughest conditions, scholars say, are no guarantee criminals won't break laws again once they are released.
While experts are reluctant to link prison conditions with crime deterrence, taxpayers across the country are clammoring for "scared straight" laws they believe will turn criminals around.
Inmates say taking the word "comfortable" out of the Tennessee Constitution was not an issue that prison life was never comfortable.
"I don't see nothing comfortable," said Ned Wilson, who was recently released from Middle Tennessee Correctional Complex in Nashville after serving five years for aggravated assault.
"It takes your freedom," said Wilson, 25, of Knoxville. "It takes your family. Eventually they fade away. I know I've lost a lot."
On Nov. 3, Tennessee voters overwhelmingly chose to delete that word "comfortable" from the 127-year-old constitutional requirement that state prisons be "safe and comfortable."
The change in Tennessee follows several similar "no frills" prison bills across the nation. And it strikes at the center of a continuing debate about finding the proper balance between rehabilitation and retribution.
It's a debate that seems to go through pendulum swings, corrections experts say. Despite changing trends, no program seems to guarantee a lowering of the number of inmates who return to prison a second time.
Studies vary, but generally find that between 35% to 40% of adult inmates in prison for the first time return to serve additional sentences.
Sometimes, as in the bill passed last year in Alaska, the new laws take away specific privileges.
Alaska voters approved the banning of tobacco, some weightlifting equipment and cassette tapes in prison.
The Alaska bill also restricted TVs to those inmates who are either working toward gaining equivalency degrees or job skills.
Back in August, the Tennessee Department of Correction said it would not take away personal cassette players from inmates, but it would not allow any more into the prisons. And it would not let inmates repair their old tape players that break. CD players also are banned.
The problem stemmed from inmates listening to music or messages that incited anger, said Pam Hobbins, spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Correction.
Religious and educational tapes are still allowed. And blind, illiterate or physically disabled inmates may have access to tape players instead of writing letters.
Tennessee inmates are allowed to own small, Walkman-type radios and small televisions. They do not have cable TV.
Weightlifting equipment that breaks is being removed and not repaired, said Jim Rose, assistant commissioner for operations at the Tennessee Department of Correction.
And that may be enough to satisfy one sponsor of the Tennessee amendment to delete the word "comfortable."
"I don't think there's any changes that need to be made," said state Rep. Frank Buck, D-Dowelltown. "I don't think there are any (prison) country clubs out there."
Buck worried, however, that a judge might interpret the word comfortable to mean implementing some plush, expensive features.
"I just wanted to make sure that there's no constitutional requirement that they have any particular degree of comfort. That has been accomplished," Buck said. "I'm not aware of any particular changes they need to make."
The Meaning of Comfort
Comfort, as it was understood by the state constitutional convention in 1870, did not mean soft or plush.
Some lawmakers remembered the wretched conditions of a Civil War prison and wanted to make sure the state provided humane conditions. More than a century later, however, Buck came to believe the phrase could hurt the state. He wanted an amendment "to make sure that at some point in time, some liberal judge didn't absolutely bankrupt the state," said Buck, chairman of the state House Judiciary Committee.
It took 100 years for legislators to reinterpret the word "comfort," but trends in criminal justice shift more quickly than that.
In the 1960s, the emphasis swung away from punishing and moved toward rehabilitating. Now the mood seems to be reversing.
"We keep swinging from one extreme to the other," said Robert Sigler, professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama.
And there's a reason for that.
Reforming criminals for the future and retaliating against them for their past call are contradictory methods that are hard, if not impossible, to combine. Thus, different ends of the the spectrum go in and out of vogue.
While giving inmates a soft life of idleness certainly will not deter them from further crime, hardening their living conditions beyond a certain point won't succeed either.
"The worse you treat people, the worse they become. And the harsher the environment, the harder it is to manage the population," Sigler said.
And yet, simply providing inmates with examples of good behavior is not enough to turn lives around, said Robert Blecker, a professor at New York Law School, who has spent a great deal of time inside prisons.
"Rehabilitation is real and it's rare," Blecker said. "But it can be faked. And it can't be forced."
Not to mention, it can be forgotten when an ex-convict returns to old surroundings on the outside.
Blecker believes that prison should be punishment. But he recognizes the inequities of that.
First of all, punishment is hardest on those who serve the shortest sentences. They often have committed the less heinous crimes and are the least prepared for a harsh setting.
By contrast, those with longer sentences often have a history of giving and getting harsh treatment. And the longer they remain in prison, the more they learn how to gain power in the informal system that operates among inmates.
They also know how to win the legal and illegal rewards that are available inside some prisons, Blecker said.
As for television, most corrections experts say TVs help keep prisoners occupied.
"If they're watching Oprah, they're not hitting each other over the head with broken broom handles," said Kevin Wright, criminal justice professor at Binghamton University in New York.
Wright says there is no sure way to accomplish rehabilitation especially a deeply felt reform that will overcome the old temptations of crime on the outside.
Prisons only can offer models of successful behavior for inmates to witness. That includes the humane treatment of other people, but it can not guarantee that former inmates stay out of trouble.
Sigler said only two types of programs have proven successful volunteers in the prison and work release.
Volunteers who counsel inmates often serve as a link to finding ex-offenders a job when they're paroled. And work-release programs can give inmates real-life work experience and allow them to build up savings.
That savings means they can pay rent when they leave prison or return to their families without being a financial drain.
Leaving Prison Without Anger
Jobs are crucial for parole to be successful.
But finding a job has been hard for George Moore, who was paroled recently from Middle Tennessee Corrections Complex after serving two years on a conviction for selling crack cocaine.
He would have liked the prison system to give him some leads, especially since he said he was working hard for that system during the last days before release.
He worked on an interstate clean-up crew, picking up trash in the heat, rain and cold. He wonders why people think he's so comfortable in prison.
"They run around on the outside and think this is easy. This is no joke," said Moore, 28.
Ex-convicts and parolees face a lot of barriers from people who worry about hiring them. But after much phoning and pleading, Moore found a relative who offered him work in northern Alabama.
He had previously served one year on the drug charge, stayed out of trouble for a couple of years. But when he violated his parole, he wound up serving another two years on his sentence.
Moore said his second time in prison was more painful the lack of privacy, the separation from his family, the loss of control over his life and weighed more heavily on him.
He didn't like the fact that near the end of his sentence he was moved to a prison annex that had sparse barracks-style housing. He felt that at a time when the prison system should be easing up on him, he was placed in a situation where he had even less privacy.
Instead of sharing a cell with one person, Moore shared a room with more than 50 inmates. But he did have more freedom to walk around the fenced grounds.
And, he learned to better control his emotions. "If you don't learn anything else in a place like this, you learn to bite your tongue," Moore said.
Moore has some bitterness at the prison system, but that might keep him focused on staying out of trouble.
Inmates should leave prison with neither a long-festering rage nor a pleasant nostalgia, Blecker, the law professor, said.
They should leave with a wish to reconnect with the everyday world. "At the end of their sentence, the goal is reintegration."
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